Things have never come easy for Bhekifa Ezra Matshenja. Perhaps that’s why his advice to young aspiring farmers is not to be “sissies”.
The 36-year-old poultry and vegetable farmer from Eikenhof in the south of Johannesburg shares that he had to sleep in a chicken house at the start of his career.
“I would sleep with my chickens inside the chicken houses I was renting in 2013, but I would make sure that my customers never saw me. At night I would divide the chicken house so that I could fit my bed and make food before I went to bed,” he shares.
Fortunately for him that same year his infrastructural funding application was approved by the department of trade, industry and competition and he was able to receive land in Eikenhof.
“I started with my vegetable production, I was able to grow vegetables for my own consumption and to trade locally.”
He had also applied for the social development Agripark programme run by the provincial department of agriculture in Gauteng. The programme was looking for poultry and livestock farmers to occupy land.
“I told them that I have got funding and I asked them if I can pilot. They gave me a piece of land to pilot, and I never looked back ever since.”
He started breeding his poultry and selling to the informal market in Soweto. But just when he thought that he had made a breakthrough, his business failed in 2014.
“I tried again in 2015 and my business went south in August that year. When I tried for the third time in 2016 my business finally took off,” he says.
He sold his poultry in Soweto and Ekhuruleni and also to the informal market and street vendors in the south of Johannesburg.
‘You can’t just give up. You need to weather the storms if you want to succeed in life.’
More than seven years later his poultry farming enterprise called Inhlakanipho Projects and Farms specialises in the rearing of chickens from a day old up to maturity. It also caters to a large customer base in the south of Johannesburg, including vendors, supermarkets, and households.
He says in total the company currently rears about 3000 chickens in a six-week cycle.
“I used to sell my chickens in the streets in 2009, right by the Impala road next to Protea Glen, so being able to expand my market base has really made me proud,” he says.
Matshenja indicates that in the future he wants to be a commercial farmer that produces about a 100 000 to 200 000 chickens on his farm. Although he is not where he wants to be yet, he has taken great strides to get there.
“On my farm I have already managed to construct a structure that can take up to 3000 chickens. I have also built a rural abattoir where I can slaughter my chickens.”
In 2018 the young farmer was also named Young Farmer of the Year by the provincial department of agriculture in Gauteng.
“Being able to run a sustainable business and being able to create employment for people in my community is something to be proud of,” he says.
Matshenja currently employs three full-time and three seasonal workers on his farm. “I have one employee who looks after the poultry houses, another in the slaughterhouse and one who assists me on the vegetable farm.”
On his vegetable farm he currently has planted 4500 cabbages and plans to also plans to plant carrots and beetroots.
He sells his vegetables to the Dlamini superstore in Soweto and street vendors in his community.
Employees are the secret to success
He reveals that the recipe to his success is to always stay humble and treat his customers with respect, regardless of their attitude.
“At the end of the day it is their money,” he says. He also mentions that treating your employees with respect is key.
“Always communicate well with your employees regardless of their nationality and always treat them with respect. Always let them know about your future plans. I would’ve never survived or grown to this level without my employees, so I respect them and treasure them until this day,” he says.
Matshenja has also learned to be patient.
“Over the festive season I would see my friends going out on trips and then I would have to load the van with chickens and go sell them in the streets. It got to me at first, but I eventually grew the patience because I knew what I wanted and I knew it would take time and sacrifice to get there,” he says.
He reveals that the need to keep his parents and two kids fed has always kept him going. “I want them to have a better life than I had and everything that I never had. But most importantly I want them to know the value of hard work.”